The Three Musketeers | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Three Musketeers


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Absolute Theatre Company and Organic Theater Company

It would be hard to come up with a better stage adaptation of The Three Musketeers than the Absolute Theatre's current production. Well staged, well acted, well paced, this two-part, six-hour show is at once entertaining, exciting, and faithful to the spirit of Dumas' original novel (in a way that many of the film versions of the novel, including Richard Lester's vulgar and slapstick films from the 70s, were not).

Presented as two separate plays--Call to Adventure and Milady de Winter (which can be seen sequentially on either Saturday and Sunday, or one an evening during the week)--Three Musketeers retells the familiar story of D'Artagnan, that country boy from Gascony who travels to Paris seeking his fortune and hoping for a place in King Louis XIII's guard. After a series of amazing coincidences (coincidences virtually power this plot) D'Artagnan is adopted by three of the King's most flamboyant musketeers--Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.

Nearly every twist and turn of the original novel appears in this play: the rivalry between King Louis and Cardinal Richelieu, the (perhaps) unrequited love affair between Queen Anne and the Duke of Buckingham, and the various attempts of Richelieu and his evil retinue to embarrass the queen, estrange the king, and thus prevent the conception of an heir to the throne. Call to Adventure follows the action of the first half of the novel, ending in an exciting race to England by our four heroes to retrieve a pair of diamond tags given to the Duke of Buckingham by the queen in a moment of indiscretion.

Call to Adventure ends happily, with Richelieu's dark designs thwarted by the brave and chivalrous D'Artagnan, who declares he would do anything to preserve the honor of his queen. Call to Adventure works quite well by itself as a complete play, something that cannot really be said for the considerably darker and more pessimistic second half of The Three Musketeers--Milady de Winter.

The cold and soulless Milady, seemingly motivated as much by spite as by Richelieu's political calculations, becomes enmeshed in a complicated (and confusing) plot to bring down Queen Anne that somehow involves the seduction and abandonment of D'Artagnan, the abduction and imprisonment of D'Artagnan's lover Constance, and the murder of Lord Buckingham. (Why she didn't just go for the queen directly and be done with it, I'll never know.) Hobbled from the start by a long, overly detailed, and unnecessarily complicated recap of the events in Call to Adventure, Milady de Winter takes forever to decide which story it's going to follow--the rebellion at Rochelle, D'Artagnan's love for Constance (or Milady, or Kitty), or the murder and mayhem that Milady brings with her wherever she goes.

By the time good triumphs over evil--in a disturbing bit of frontier justice that would make anyone doubt the essential goodness of the "good guys"--the story has raised many more questions than it answers. When Athos comforts the sadder but wiser D'Artagnan with, "You are young, and your bitter recollections have time to change themselves into sweet remembrances," I could not help but think that Dumas' novel was nothing more than a sweetened memory of a bitter chapter of French history when hundreds of innocent men, women, and children were slaughtered by men dressed as gallantly as D'Artagnan and his fellow musketeers, merely for declaring themselves independent of cardinals as corrupt as Richelieu.

However, even with its moral ambivalence--much of it lifted directly from Dumas' novel--Milady de Winter is an immensely entertaining play. David Cameron, quite charming as the boyish, chivalrous, and ever so slightly oafish D'Artagnan, plays very well off Bruce D. Orendorf, Geoff Callaway, and Ric Kraus, respectively Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Orendorf, Callaway, and Kraus succeed in the not always easy task of making the Musketeers both inseparables and unique personalities. Kraus was especially entertaining as the bookish and effete Aramis, the "temporary musketeer" who fully intends to join the priesthood once the fighting (and his desire for skirtchasing) comes to an end.

An even more impressive feat is Tim Philbin's interpretation of Cardinal Richelieu. The temptation is great to play Richelieu as satanic. Philbin resisted this, and made the cardinal, above all else, a cool, practical man of politics--capable of great evil, of course, but ever mindful of the effect of such actions on his career and his cause.

I wish I could say the same of Don Tieri's King Louis XIII and Lisa Ann Tejero's Milady de Winter. The two make opposite mistakes in interpreting their characters. Tieri plays up the comic side of the king too much, making him a shrimpy, squeaky-voiced, indecisive cuckold and fool. While this works to make Louis XIII likable and funny in early comic scenes, when the time comes for the king to be serious, it is hard for us to take him that way. Similarly, Tejero's Milady de Winter is so dark and humorless it is hard to take her seriously. She seems destined from the start for failure, which puts her in contrast to Richelieu, whose political arts virtually guarantee that he will never be toppled from power. (Let me say that I disliked Faye Dunaway's interpretation of Milady in Richard Lester's Four Musketeers for much the same reasons; perhaps the flaw lies in Dumas' conception of Milady, and not in any actress who plays her.)

These complaints aside, Warner Crocker has assembled a fine and talented cast, and everyone involved in the show should be proud. Especially David Ruckman (the show's adaptor), Michael Vitali (for his music), and Charles Coyl (who choreographed the show's frighteningly realistic sword fights).

Having said all this, I must finally admit that there is something anachronistic, irrelevant, and even kind of reactionary in adapting a novel that has been performed so many times already on the stage and screen. As if the Absolute Theatre Company wanted to do a show that was at once a little risky and very safe. Of course, this contradictory desire for risk-free adventure is a very 80s impulse, and it's hard to fault a theater for being in tune with its time. But it's also hard not to feel a little disappointed and unsatisfied when the final curtain falls, and one realizes that nothing more was accomplished by six months of intense workshopping and six hours of intense stage work than merely an adaptation of The Three Musketeers.

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